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Headstand as a Life Lesson?

Two weeks ago, I found myself upside down and scared out of my mind. After 12 years of religiously practicing Bikram yoga, I decided to begin exploring the wonders of the headstand in my power yoga class. It was not a decision taken lightly.  As I lifted my feet to a decidedly unnatural position above my head, I pondered two great unknowns: 1) would I break my neck? and 2) could I really become “one of those people” who invert with such confidence and ease?

But before I could answer either of these questions, I was out of the pose, resting comfortably in child’s pose (and slightly in awe of myself). Since that first attempt, I’ve done it about 3 or 4 more times, each time with a little less trepidation, a little less fear and a lot more pride.

I then realized my exploration with the headstand provides four great lessons for personal and professional development:

  1. Being uncomfortable is OK: In a company where change is a constant, I often hear “get comfortable being uncomfortable,” which always struck me as an incompatible state. In hindsight, and with my new “headstand lens,” I realize it’s not only OK to be uncomfortable but it actually makes you grow as a person.
  2. Let go of the outcome: In our formative years, WCG worked with a wonderful professional coach, Pat Newman, whose mantra was “let go of the outcome.” A more recent life coach I’ve worked with, Kelsey Lowitz, helped me find a related mantra – “Let the River Flow.” In other words, life will bring you challenges – that’s guaranteed – but how you deal with them is up to you. Stay open to any possible outcome, whether or not that outcome is one that you brought to the table. Had I not been able to let go of the outcome, my feet would have never left the ground.
  3. Push your limits and change: You can’t teach an old dog new tricks? Don’t buy it. From small, incremental tweaks to major life changes, new routines can all be good for the soul … and the career. Ten years ago, my old job moved me from New York City to San Francisco. A moment of panic, insecurity and major fear led to the best changes of my life. It brought me to WCG, enabled my husband and me to forge a new chapter in our life together and, most recently, led me to the joys of suburban homeownership.
  4. Surprise Yourself: No one quite knows what they are capable of until they plunge into the unknown. In my personal life (marrying someone unexpected, uprooting my New York life, cycling through the devastating loss of my parents) and in my professional life (joining a start-up, leading a ridiculously fast-paced company through growth and change, shifting roles along the way), it’s all been a journey of self-discovery and surprise. If you don’t dip your toe in the water – whatever it is – you’ll never have the chance to experience what’s possible.

Since my major headstand accomplishment, and the realization that I’ll only get better and better as I release my fear, it’s been remarkable to see how much of my life fits that wonderful upside-down lens.

What’s your headstand lens?

Over the course of the past weekend, I took refuge from the unusually hot British summer weather in a country house hotel deep in the lush green countryside. No spa treatments or weddings for me as for most of the rest of the guests; I was leading a seminar on measuring and managing corporate reputation in our always-on world, for a diverse group of Kingston MBA students.

Investing in the next generation of communicators and business leaders is hardwired into the W2O ethos, and the Group’s partnership with the New House School to create the Center for Social Commerce is testament to our commitment to industry and academic collaboration. So when I was presented with the opportunity to explore the changing face of corporate reputation with tomorrow’s bosses, I leapt at the chance.

The group included students from late-20s to mid-40s, from half a dozen countries, and in roles as varied as logistics, finance, marketing and IT infrastructure – and interestingly none currently with a direct role, strategic or implementational, in social media or analytics. In preparing content and stimulus material, I deliberately decided to avoid Reputation 101 – this was a group of MBA candidates, after all. I was richly rewarded for that decision.

Much of the W2O world may have been alien to most of them, and removed from the detail of their day jobs. But their interest, engagement and depth of ideas were incredibly rewarding and encouraging. A breadth of thinking developed in their careers to date – honed by the first year of their two-year course – gave them a healthy scepticism for the claims made by many social media analytics providers. They volunteered many practical examples of how they’ve personally helped to break down silos between different areas of communications in recent years. And they also had a clear interest and understanding of how new approaches to monitoring and measuring the impact of social conversation can – at last – provide the C-suite with the type of metrics that breed confidence, not suspicion or contempt.

Where my cohort really came into its own was during the group exercise. Three groups tackled what they would do today, tomorrow, in a month’s time and six months from today in the following scenarios:

  • Being Boeing … after last week’s fire on an Air Ethiopia Dreamliner, just after the company has gotten over the reputational damage of lithium batteries catching fire
  • Being Google … in the event that the British Government were to decide to enforce payment of millions of dollars of corporation tax
  • Being Tesco, Britain’s biggest supermarket chain … in the wake of the recent horsemeat scandal, in which burgers and ready meals were found to contain “up to 100%” horsemeat, not beef

Like any good teacher, I had plans worked out for each scenario, and what impressed me with each group was the quality of thinking in the strategic plans they developed in all of 45 minutes. One had set a compelling vision (for Tesco to become the country’s most transparent supermarket) and worked all activation, operational and communications, back from that end point. The next created a compelling matrix for all stakeholders – and influencers of stakeholders – to leave no audience unaddressed, no channel untapped (Boeing came up smelling of roses). And the third took a deliberately contrarian position to ensure that Google didn’t only mend bridges with the British and EU-level Government officials. They also planned for to use the company’s data analytics and visualization skills to set the global agenda on corporate taxation. Gratifyingly, all three baked social media outreach and engagement into their plans, with hard KPIs at every time point.

Not only did I feel I’d learned a lot from a richly diverse group of students from a wide variety of backgrounds. In discussion over lunch afterwards, I also walked away with a couple of new contacts from companies and organizations who were interested in learning more about how our approach to social analytics could help kick-start their businesses’ engagement in social media.

A very productive and thankfully chilled way to spend a Saturday.

As a schoolboy, like many other kids, I played Little League baseball. In high school, I ran cross-country and track.

I was never a star athlete. My baseball career ended when I was too old for Little League. And my long distance running times were mediocre, at best. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy myself or get a lot out of the experiences. I’m still a baseball fan, and continued running recreationally into my adult years, including competing in a half-dozen marathons.

Aside from the fun of competition, the lessons I learned from participating in sports were deep and have stayed with me to this day. It’s why I feel strongly that children should compete in sports – aside from the obvious health benefits.

Lesson number one is the importance of preparation. Second is tenacity. Lastly, there’s also what we learn in being a member of a team.

Preparation

The best ballplayers in the Major Leagues are the ones you see on the field before every game taking batting practice. Even the veterans. Especially the veterans. They take multiple swings. Meanwhile, the best infielders will field countless grounders in practice.

In my brief high school career in cross-country and track, our best runner always ran before school and after school – even in the off-season. When we finished our after-school practice, he’d keep running. The rest of us were too exhausted from our workouts and never felt the urge to join him in his extended runs. He was singularly dedicated.

As a senior, he won both the California state mile and cross-country championships. I wasn’t surprised, though I was certainly impressed.

The same holds true in business. We do our best work and feel most confident when we know what we’re talking about – and I mean really know it. Conversely, when we come into a meeting without previewing materials, without preparing, without thinking through the purpose of the meeting and our role, we often make fools of ourselves. Worse, we waste other people’s time.

It’s a lesson we learn in Little League, and other youth sports. If you showed up for a game having missed practice, chances are the coach was not going to let you play – not as punishment, but because you weren’t ready.

Tenacity

Being involved in sports also teaches you to be persistent. Clearing a given height in high jump or pole vault is an immediate goal. After failing on the initial try, true competitors don’t stop. They give it another go. Same with the miler, the shortstop, or the running back when their efforts fall short.

I would take third place (or worse) in the mile at a track meet, running slower than I knew I was capable of. My coach spoke encouraging words after such performances and helped me appreciate my true abilities. I came away with a desire to go back the next time with renewed determination, a resolve to practice harder, and a yearning to push myself harder during the next race through the pain that had held me back.

Again, it’s an important lesson for business, where we may fail to win an account, or fall short of performance metrics. We don’t quit. Instead, we carefully examine what we did that led to the less-than-satisfactory outcome and make appropriate adjustments for future such endeavors. And that generally means putting in a more strenuous effort and, likely, more time.

Contributor

While the foregoing lessons are valuable, perhaps the most important one learned as an adolescent team member is one’s role as a contributor to a larger entity. Though every team has its standout members, the collective unit, as a whole, succeeds on the sum total contribution of all its members.

Superstars in team sports cannot beat the other teams alone without his/her teammates and their varied contributions.

Similarly, no business succeeds on the genius and drive of its founder and/or leadership team. Instead, it depends on the collective genius and efforts of many people at all levels of the organization, each doing his/her job well, each striving for excellence in their own area of responsibility, each focused on business goals.

Our individual knowledge and awareness of our unique role and responsibilities as part of the larger operation is critical to the organization’s succeeding or failing. The best leaders are those that not only communicate the importance of the individuals’ contributions and the significance of their excellence, but also really comprehend and appreciate its value, and lead the team accordingly, identifying and addressing overall weaknesses.

In the end, aren’t we all striving for the level of performance we sought as young sports enthusiasts? Isn’t our role as members of a business team ultimately an extension of the roles when we played on a Little League team? Those were valuable lessons we learned as kids, and we’d be wise to think of them not only as nostalgic memories but also as life lessons to be held dearly.

This summer I embarked on a crazy road trip adventure.  I left New York headed to Los Angeles (solo) where I’m living for the summer, before turning around and driving back home; this time with my family in the car.

Along the 3,900 mile journey (I took the long way, through Austin) I had a lot of time on my hands to reflect; here are the top lessons learned, applicable to business, while driving west:

1)      Undivided Attention is Key

OK, sure – you could say I was driving and talking, but when you’re on long stretches of roads with no cars anywhere (hello Route 10), it was the perfect time to have 1-on-1 calls with clients and staff.  Too often in meetings I’m constantly interrupted by incoming emails or other distractions; rarely do we unplug entirely and devote  100% attention to person on the phone.  I did some of my best thinking and provided the best counsel/advice when all attention was on the person I was talking to, and I vowed to myself I will do more of this more often when I’m back at my desk.

2)      Face Time > FaceTime

I’m very fortunate to work for a company with multiple offices; plotting the drive where offices are stay-overs turned out to be a great decision.  I spent quality time with my team and “pop in” visits with extended teams who have nothing to do with my business.  I learned about things they were working on, immediately saw how their thinking could be applied to my line of business.  Too often we’re caught up in our own worlds; going outside our comfort zone can result in great new POVs and incremental business.

3)      Go the extra mile

I’ve done this x-country drive before (4 times, actually) and even the best plans require a change when opportunity strikes.  In my case,opportunity to meet a new business prospect was a 200 mile detour, which was not only a scenic drive, but could result in more business.   In this example, I literally drove the extra mile, but it reminded me that going the extra mile for current clients is what it’s all about in a service industry.   With nothing but asphault ahead of me, I pushed myself for new ideas that no one else is thinking about and looking at things from a totally different POV.  Back at my desk now, I keep asking: what more can be done to go that extra mile?

The journey back to the east coast begins in a couple of short weeks, with the wife and the kids in the car together.  I can’t wait to learn what my family teaches me along the 3,500 miles home; it may prove inspirational for part 2 of this post.

Jennifer Gottlieb, Practice Leader of WCG’s sister company Twist Mktg, has been working on her “work-life balance” for more than 20 years. In that time, she’s realized that it’s not about balance – it’s about blend! She doesn’t see technology such as her Blackberry to be a constraint, rather, she sees it as the key to her freedom. As more Millennials move in to the work force (they will make up more the 46% of the workforce by 2020), she’s pleased to see that they are looking for the same blend of work and life. To see her full blog post and her other insights, head over to the Twist Blog!

As anyone connected to an information source knows, parts of London burned over the last few days. Scenes of looting and overwhelmed riot police have dominated the endless news loop.  The talking heads on television don’t seem to know what to make of the chaos.  There’s no consensus as to what the source of the problem is. People viewing the problem with a socioeconomic lens blame the austerity measures, some see racial undertones, while other misguided individuals blame social media. There are many ways to view the current state of unrest, but blaming social media is a bit far fetched. It’s the equivalent of baseball bat for breaking a window. A bat alone will not break anything. In the same sense, social networks are merely tools that we use to communicate in real time. What people choose to communicate is up to them. Social media as a channel is neutral and can be used for good, evil or annoyance in some cases.

The Internet and social networks are guilty of enhancing the ability and speed of one of the most fundamental human traits, the desire to socialize. Since the beginning of civilization, people have come together to discuss anything and everything. A word-of-mouth recommendation from a trusted source is still one of the most effective drivers of commerce today.  The main difference between now and 2000 years ago is that a physical presence is no longer required to share information or to gather around an idea. Before media, the fastest way to spread information to a large group was to unite them into a single location and to provide them with information that they can pass on to others. You can imagine how some messages may have lost momentum or become warped beyond recognition. Today messages are repeated more frequently across vast distances, but that doesn’t mean they’re immune from the issues of the past.

Welcome to the hyper-connected world. A world where people and ideas can all be interconnected at lightning speed. You don’t even need to be digitally connected to be a part of zeitgeist. There’s a good chance that relevant information will find you through someone nearby who ‘s linked in. People gather for and against ideas, but thanks to social media, they can unite in real time using nothing more than a connected device or knowing someone with one. Living in hyper-connected times means that we must rethink the concept of community to include flash unions that form and break up dozens of times per day. The police in London describe their policing style as community policing, but physical communities are only part of the equation. There is a clear line between gaining a better understanding of what’s happening in the digital space and imposing a full big brother crackdown on social media as has been suggested. We can’t expect Blackberry to shut its messenger service because you don’t like what’s being said.

There is some good news for the battered city. Police are learning from how these events materialize. They are starting to understand the language of flash unions and they are able to track what’s being said publicly. Blackberry’s BBM, a private communication channel for users of their devices, is more difficult to track. Blackberry is cooperating with police to track and trace crime related messages. There are two sides to every coin. So if you want to blame social media, you can. Just be sure to give it credit when something positive happens as well.  People used social networks to unite in the name of anger and chaos, but today others used social channels to aid the cleanup effort. Time will tell which of these movements last longer. Both the rioters with balaclavas and the anti-rioters with brooms have gathered around polarizing ideas. But I wouldn’t be surprised if a select few rallied around anarchy in private and order in public. In our dynamic hyper-connect world you can use social media to be a part of any community, social, anti-social, or both.

 

 

 

 

Here are a few lessons learned from a few days of madness:

1.  Social Media is a communications tool that makes it easier and faster to communicate (anything).

2.  Don’t blame the tool for the actions of the user. We must be careful and cautious when using social media professionally because there’s always an element of unpredictability when communicating through a shared medium.

3.  Communities are dynamic unions of people that are only as strong the idea that they are centered around. Strong communities can be real, virtual or any combination of both. Nurtured communities thrive on and offline.

4. Don’t overreact. We’re all still learning and getting better at communicating and listening online. Take the time to learn more about what’s really happening before making rushed decisions.

5. With great power comes great responsibility. A tool for one is a weapon for another.

Internal agency structure as a USP is just a canard

An article recently published in PR Week trotted out once again the old canard of the inherent benefits for clients associated with their agencies’ internal structure, specifically that those agencies who dispense with the ‘old’ hierarchies and embrace a ‘no titles’ structure will blaze a trail of enhanced client service.

It’s a nice idea, but unfortunately in most cases it is just a solution searching for a problem. I have worked in several agencies during my career to date, and have experienced both the ‘hierarchical’ and ‘no titles’ set-ups. Was there any difference between agencies in the quality of our client service that could be directly attributed to how we were structured internally? Not at all.

The stated aim of getting rid of titles is basically to ensure that only the most relevant agency personnel work on a particular piece of business, no matter which function they are part of, where they are physically located or their level of experience. Makes perfect sense, of course, but this is perfectly possible within a normal agency structure.

In most cases, failure to give a particular client the services of the best possible team is the fault of senior management, not the agency structure. An enlightened leadership team will always make sure that clients’ needs are met, not letting internal rivalries and fiefdoms or separate agency offices’ P&Ls get in the way.

The next time that you are selecting an agency (or interviewing to join one), ask yourself the following question: do you want to work with an agency that ranks its own internal structure (or lack of) of equal (or greater) importance than what it can do for you?

If the answer is no, then you know whom to call… 😉